One can well understand that it is well-nigh impossible to satisfy all interest groups in a multi-racial and complex society like Mauritius when it comes to the system that sets the rules of choosing who gets to sit as the people’s representatives in our Parliament. The question of electoral reform has been raised time and again in the past, but nothing concrete could be accomplished in terms of meaningful electoral reform for different reasons.
When politicians do contemplate to change the rules of the electoral game, different interpretations can be assigned to their political motivations. Opposition politicians will no doubt give their own colouring to the government’s initiative, but what is important, in our view, is the need to do away with the inequities of a system that risk perpetuating themselves. Politics will thus continue to be characterized by the same fragility that has the effect of throwing out of politics all its good elements. It is not in the interest of the country to perpetuate a political renewal system that results in third or fourth best solutions when we could have gone for first best solutions by movers of real change.
For a genuine electoral reform encompassing all aspects relating to the conduct of elections, including the financing of political parties and campaigns, the iniquitous issue of skewed delimitation of constituency sizes that defeats the concept of one-man-one-vote, the democratisation of political parties, etc., there has to be the political will to bring about concrete change. But such is blatantly not the case with one of the several issues connected with meaningful electoral reform: the recent government proposals relating to political financing.
It would seem that the proposals have been so drafted as to meet with widespread opposition from most quarters, or at best to ensure if it goes through to exclude from its purview any donations that go to Trusts, thus placing most of our political parties on an uneven footing with respect to existing Trusts. Worse still, the other disturbing aspect of the Political Financing Bill is that it formalises the corporate sector’s influence, through its ‘donations’ to mostly the mainstream parties, on who gets to sit in Parliament and therefore on public policy making.
The private sector’s direct involvement in the financing of electoral campaigns of political parties and some of the candidates themselves is an open secret. ‘In the absence of official figures, one can only speculate but it would not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the correlation between political financing and governmental endorsement of projects put forward by political donors is very high’, says K. Parapen in this week’s interview: ‘How else do we explain the privatisation of power production at preferential market rates to certain important actors of the private sector? How else do we explain the exemption of at least MUR 10 billion of land conversion taxes for the development of Smart Cities? How else do we explain the allocation of all public renovation works to one subsidiary of a former conglomerate? How else do we explain the approval of an EIA License to build a hotel on highly valued wetlands?’
How else do we also explain, as highlighted by Mrinal Roy in this same issue, the ‘latest example of government largesse…for building the Victoria Terminal and other terminals around the main stations of the Metro Express project’, which is to be built by a private sector consortium that benefits from the same tax breaks as the smart city scheme. ‘This includes an 8-year corporate tax holiday on income generated, exemption of Value Added Tax on capital goods for the first 8 years and an exemption of Customs Duty on various imports. The project is also exempted from the need of an Environment Impact Assessment permit despite being located on land which had initially been reclaimed from the sea.’ Can we fault the public if they seek to understand the political motivation underlying such largesses?
Forget about an all-encompassing and meaningful electoral reform initiative, what is being proposed by the present government through its Political Financing Bill is another missed opportunity to clean up the Augean stables, that is if it was not deliberately meant by its promoters to be shot down.
In his report on ‘Constitutional and Electoral Reform 2001/02’, Albie Sachs wrote: “There is no need to insist on how powerful and rich corporations have, through financial pressure, tried the world over to influence those likely to exercise political decisions. This explains why many democratic countries have thought it wise to ban altogether any possibility of political patronage by powerful Companies. Suffice it to say that we had the advantage of receiving somebody who has exercised ministerial responsibility and who had the courage to invite us to recommend the banning of political patronage by the Chief Executives of important companies with shareholder’s money. He remarked: “They never give something for nothing”.’
The sheer scale of spending that we see during the local political campaigns point to the invisible hand of private donors in the electoral game. This helps politicians to remain unaccountable as regards the financing of their real campaign. We can eliminate this scourge by legislating that all political campaign funding should be by the State. Spending limits should also be prescribed and scrupulously observed by each candidate at the risk of invalidation of results. Even if public money is involved, the long-run costs to the public would be insignificant as policies unrelated to the private interests of private companies can then be adopted.
But the status quo seems so convenient to those who lead and hold the parties purse…
* Published in print edition on 12 July 2019